Category Archives: CNN


A version of this story was first published on CNN’s science blog, Light Years, June 19, 2012. 

The summer is upon us and if you live somewhere relatively hot or you’re going some place hot for your holidays, there’s a good chance you’ll see fireflies.


I live in Brooklyn, New York, and when I look out my bedroom window I can see them hovering in the yard, tiny balls of yellow light that flicker on and off in the dusk like lighters at a rock concert.

Fireflies are quite a common sight although for how long we don’t know. There have been widespread reports that fireflies numbers are dwindling. The reports are all anecdotal but they were enough of a concern for entomologists and biologists to convene a symposium in Thailand in 2008 entitled, “Diversity and Conservation of Fireflies.”

If fireflies are under threat it’s a terrible state of affairs. They are a unique and interesting creature and their loss ultimately would be our loss. They belong to a very exclusive group of land creatures that exhibit a phenomenon known as bioluminescence.

In simple terms, bioluminescence is technique certain organisms have developed to create energy, in the form of light, via a chemical reaction. This reaction often involves a chemical called luciferin.

Fireflies are unique because most bioluminescent creatures – 80 percent – live in the sea. On land only certain insects and fungi are bioluminescent.

It was in the ocean that I first found out about the phenomenon.

I grew up in England where we don’t get fireflies. We get things called glow worms, which are not worms at all but flightless insects. They’re hard to spot since they’re usually hidden away in long grass or hedgerows. Consequently most Brits will probably tell you that their only recollection of a glow worm growing up was via the pages of a cute children’s story.

It was few years ago and I was on Lombok, a tiny island next to Bali, when I first experienced the weird spectacle of nature flickering to light in the darkness. I went for a midnight swim and started to feel a strange prickling sensation and when I dipped my head underwater and ran my hand in front of me it was as if the Milky War had been miniaturized and liquified at the same time.

The trial of sparks left by your moving hand in bioluminescent waters is caused by single-cell organisms called dinoflagellates. They’re a mysterious organism scientists don’t fully understand. They’re a form of plankton and while they feed on prey and move around like animals, they can also convert the sun’s rays into food using chlorophyll in the same way plants do.

If you want to see the coolest bioluminescent creatures though, you’ve got to go into deep water.

Unless you’re James Cameron or that ridiculous (sorry, I mean romantic) couple who got wed on the deck of the wreck of the Titanic, you probably can’t afford a ride in a deep sea submersible to the ocean bottom.

Don’t despair though. If you’re lucky enough to be in the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) anytime soon you can check out there wonderful exhibition “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence,” which runs till January next year.

Here, fireflies rub shoulders with the creatures of the deep. In total 80 percent of deep sea organisms are bioluminescent, and certain of them have developed fascinating and elaborate ways of illuminating the permanent night.

Anglerfish, which are frankly hideous-looking things, get their name from the modified spine which sticks out of their forehead just like a fishing rod. The rod is topped with a lure that pulses with bacterial light.

Anglerfish, like most deep sea creatures, emit blue light because it’s easier to detect at these depths. An exception is the stoplight loosejaw dragonfish which gives off red light from indents just below its eyes. The loosejaw gets its name from the fact that its jaw can dislocate from its mouth when it’s hunting prey. Consequently it looks quite a lot like the alien in Predator (which I watched as a child when I’d grown out of the cute glow worm stories).

The AMNH exhibit contains many more highlights, including a small replica of a cave in New Zealand where thousands of fly larvae have turned the ceiling into a festival of stars.

Walking around the exhibit I was reminded of the limitless capacity nature has to amaze. If you’re in New York and you have a spare afternoon, go see it. Failing that, take a look in your back yard.


what makes us better than a neanderthal?

This story was published on CNN’s science blog, Light Years, on April 6, 2012.

How did modern humans conquer the planet? It’s one of the most intriguing questions in the whole of science.

early human diorama in natural history museum

Right now, sitting pretty at the top of the food chain, it’s tempting to see our 200,000-year rise to power since the emergence of the first homo sapiens as a fait accompli: The evolutionary endpoint of a story that got started on the African savannah via the two key innovations of bigger brains and the shift to walking upright.

Yet for our ancestors things were not so clear cut. For a start they were not (as we now find ourselves) the only game in town. When Cro-Magnon (ancestors of modern humans) migrated north from Africa’s Rift Valley to settle Europe around 40,000 years ago, the continent was already populated by another breed of hominid, the Neanderthals. Within a few thousands years the Neanderthals were wiped out and the Cro-Magnon had taken over.

Why was this? What special attributes did our ancestors possess that the Neanderthals did not?

As Ian Tattersall, curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History points out, the fossil record often throws up more questions than answers. Neanderthal skeletons, for example, show that they had stronger builds and the same-sized brains as Cro-Magnon. They were sophisticated tool-makers and animal remains found at Neanderthal sites reveal they were skilled hunters, expert in bringing down large prey such as woolly mammoths. Based on this evidence there is no obvious reason why we made it and they did not.

But Tattersall thinks we need to look beyond the fossil record to find the secret to our success. One place to start looking, he says, is in the Lascaux caves in southern France. Discovered accidentally in 1940 by four children, the Lascaux cave complex contains hundreds of paintings of animal figures in caverns larger than football fields.

Talking at the museum this week to promote his new book, “Masters of the Planet: The Search for Human Origins”, Tattersall describes a visit to the caves as “one of the most profound experiences of my life.” It’s more than just the beauty of the paleolithic art that moved him, however. The cave paintings, he says, prove early man’s ability to think symbolically. Horses drawn on to the cave walls are symbolic representations of real life horses.

No other species of early human left artwork behind and this, he says, is the crucial difference.

The capacity for abstract thinking is the key to our success. All our creativity stems from it. But abstract thinking is not only useful for making art. Early hunters, for example, reporting back on the movement of reindeer herds would be disadvantaged if those hearing the report could not make the mental leap of faith needed to understand that these herds existed even though they had not seen them.

“It is this capacity for ‘what if’ thinking that sets humans apart from all other creatures,” says Tattersall. He says it’s no coincidence that this advance in human cognition came along at the same time as language. “Symbolic thinking is impossible to imagine without language,” he says.

There is no evidence either way to tell us whether Cro-Magnon spoke language with each other, though Tattersall is certain they did. It’s also impossible to say if linguist ability was something early humans acquired or it was innate. Noted linguist Noam Chomsky has argued the later. He believes humans are born with an ability to learn oral language. Hence a toddlers amazing talent for stringing words together in the proper order even though they may never have heard the sentences before.

According to Tattersall, humans may have possessed the ability for language for millions of years before some, as yet unknown, cultural stimulus set it in motion. This is a common trend of evolution, says Tattersall, who has been researching our history through the fossil record since the 1960s and has written several books on the subject. “Birds had feathers for millions of years before they learned to fly. You acquire a feature and, much later on, you find a use for it.”

Of course, the capacity for symbolic thought is just one theory of how humans got to the top of the food chain, and there are many others.

It may have been, as some anthropologists have argued, that in a prehistoric age where nature was red in tooth and claw and fearsome predators such as saber-toothed tigers roamed the landscape, our ancestors were simply the most efficient at killing off the competition. Disease or drought may have played a part; so too may climate change.

That human’s unique way of seeing the world helped them on their rise to becoming the masters of the planet seems indisputable, however. Whether it was the one, big thing that made all the difference; that we may never know.

standing up to bad behaviour

This story was first published on on August 13, 2011

As a Brit living in America I have watched the footage of riots and looting going on in my homeland with a mix of sadness and shame. But shocking as the events of the last week have been, they don’t surprise me.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that anyone who has spent time riding public transport in the cities where this civil unrest occurred might echo my lack of surprise.

When I lived in London I took the bus to work every day. Aside from rush hour gridlock, the thing I dreaded most on those journeys was a certain type of adolescent getting onboard.

You could spot them immediately. There was a good chance they’d be clad in hooded sweaters, baseball caps and outlandish sports shoes. Peppering the air with expletives they would strut down the centre aisle and drop heavily into seats, yelling across to one another as if the man in the suit alongside them was no more than a phantom. And woe betide you if you made the mistake of actually engaging them: I have seen teenage girls heap mouthfuls of abuse on a passenger for no other reason than they didn’t like the way he looked at them.

If you don’t live in Britain it’s hard to appreciate just how pervasive this kind of behavior has become. It was part of what the British Prime Minister David Cameron was referring to four years ago when he stated that Britain was suffering from a “broken society.”

This week’s appalling scenes of looting are the worst manifestation to date of Cameron’s stark diagnosis.

The causes are manifold. Even so, when the debate on the riots began in earnest this week the two sides of the political divide reverted to type. The rightwing media were quick to blame neglectful parents, a breakdown of moral values and an indolent underclass with no stake in society after decades of pampering on welfare. The left pointed to the lack of jobs and opportunities in the communities many of the looters came from; they  criticized recent government cuts to facilities aimed at keeping inner-city youths occupied.

But by concentrating all their attention on the criminals, both parties have forgotten to consider the role of the other key player in this story: the British public or, to put it another way, everyone else on the bus.

Let me give you another example from my life. A few years ago I did something very out of character. At the time I was living in Leeds, one of the riot-hit cities. I was riding on the top deck of a bus home from work when a group of teenage boys began flinging coins down the aisle. Beside me sat a young woman with a baby. I shouted at the teenagers to stop, but a few minutes later they hurled a coin in my direction, which, thankfully, hit neither myself nor the mother.

I was shaken up by the experience and when I told friends about it the answer I got was universal: if it happens again, don’t get involved. I understood their concern but the defeatism of the answer was depressing.

Since moving to New York two years ago I have the impression that Americans are better at dealing with this kind of thing. I was in a pharmacy the other day when a young woman pushed past an elderly lady with a walking frame who was trying to get out the door. A customer confronted the girl who noisily protested her innocence. The good Samaritan stuck to her guns and the young woman left looking embarrassed though not quite contrite. In Britain it is rare to see that kind of intervention simply because we are by instinct much less inclined to speak to our minds.

We Brits have ceded our public space to antisocial teenagers. There has been a collective loss of nerve. Most people on the bus prefer to avert their eyes and hope trouble goes away.

This is unsurprising. Nobody wants to be pelted with coins and the consequences of intervening can be much worse. The news in Britain often carries horrendous stories about concerned citizens killed in the streets trying to break up fights or for confronting a gang of young people over some act of vandalism.

But the consequences of doing nothing are evident in all our major cities. With the police apparently incapable of tackling the problem, the hoodlums are given a free rein. Often the product of broken homes or of abusive parents, many of these young people grow up placing no value on themselves or the world around them.

In public this problem is compounded when no one censures them for their behavior. They become emboldened, regarding certain areas of towns and cities (and their public transport systems) as their own personal fiefdom where they can do or say whatever they like.

For some, this destructive path only ends with the intervention of the courts and, eventually, prison, by which point it is usually too late. There is no clear solution. The chronic social deprivation that produces this antisocial behavior is entrenched and will take decades to overcome.

It is also hard to see how ordinary Brits can take back their streets without putting themselves at risk or without descending into vigilantism. Neighborhood Watch programs serve an important role but they are hamstrung by the often chronically slow response time of the police.

Yet until Britons find a way to reclaim their streets, the anarchy we saw explode this week will never be far from the surface.  And, I’m afraid, the passengers on the bus will be in for a bumpy ride.

amy winehouse and the british media

The discovery of Amy Winehouse’s body at her London home gave Rupert Murdoch and his clan a brief respite from an avalanche of bad press, supplanting the  news of the phone-hacking scandal that had remained the lead story for weeks in British newspapers and TV shows.


It is ironic that Winehouse’s death inadvertently took some of the heat off News International, the British arm of the mogul’s media business: The troubled star was frequently a target of the tabloid culture that Murdoch helped to foster. Her battle with her private demons was very public, detailed in a nearly constant stream of lurid tales in the tabloids. The Murdoch-owned Sun newspaper, for example, published images in 2008 of Winehouse smoking from a glass pipe alongside the headline “Amy Winehouse on crack,” with a story claiming the singer had ingested a cocktail of drugs that included crack cocaine during a house party.

But the British tabloids’ casual intrusiveness into the personal lives of the famous must be re-evaluated after the firestorm of revelations about  News International’s news-gathering methods. The scandal began with the egregious story that a private investigator in the pay of the company had hacked the cell phone of a murdered schoolgirl. Up to this point, tabloids seemed to have regarded this predatory intrusiveness as a moral right.

Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron has announced a judge-led and wide-ranging inquiry into the phone hacking that could well result in recommendations for a change in the law. At the very least, the inquiry is likely to come up with proposals on press regulations — and it’s a fair guess that those proposals will deal in one way or another with what constitutes “in the public interest,” the argument defending choices of topics of news stories in Britain.

British newspapers have had an easy ride publishing details of celebrities’ private lives, with the defense that a subject’s high profile makes whatever he or she does in the public interest. The glitch, however, is that the decision about what constitutes the public interest is adjudicated by a watchdog group dominated by newspaper editors and journalists, who have their own reasons for keeping the definition of that term as broad as possible. Critics of the regulatory system insist that this cozy relationship is one of the reasons the tabloid press in Britain has been allowed to get so out of hand.

Another factor behind the tabloids’ often outrageous behavior is the nearly insatiable appetite in Britain for celebrity scandal. It is not a new thing. As far back as the mid-19th century, rumor and gossip circulating about the aristocrat and Romantic poet Lord Byron prompted the politician Thomas Macaulay to note in exasperation that “We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.”

The best-known recent example was the tabloid obsession with Princess Diana. By the time of her death in 1997, the late Princess of Wales was in the U.K. papers nearly everyday; the minutiae of her life, loves and footwear choices scrutinized ad nauseam. Her death was met with public outrage at the paparazzi, blamed by many for the car crash that killed her, and contempt for the tabloids. After briefly toning it down in the aftermath, the tabloids went back to their aggressive coverage of public figures.

Winehouse is the latest victim of this pernicious culture of sensationalism. A worldwide star whose biggest hit was a song about not wanting to go into rehab, her musical ability was matched only by her talent for self-destruction. All this made her perfect fodder for the tabloids. It was a point she appeared to acknowledge in a lyric in her 2007 Grammy-award winning album “Back to Black,” where she sang: “I told you I was trouble/You know that I’m no good.”

Many of the tracks on that album were written about her relationship with her ex-husband Blake Fielder-Civil, a man who seemed tailor-made for the role of stock villain in the cartoonish version of reality that dominates the tabloid press.

It is important not to overstate the role of the media in the tragedy of Amy Winehouse’s death — the singer’s troubles ran far deeper than some hostile column inches. Even so, the papers’ bad-taste documenting of her downward spiral bordered on cruelty. Tabloids trumpeted disturbing photographs of Winehouse stumbling barefoot through the London streets, bloodied and disoriented, dressed in tatters. Columnists wrung their hands in false concern at the plight of “poor Amy,” even as their editors turned the star’s descent into a gruesome public spectacle.

It may even turn out that the tabloids were not just prurient observers and chroniclers — a  British journalist reports, citing anonymous sources, that Winehouse, her family and close associates also might have had their phones hacked.

It is too early to know how much of an effect the phone hacking scandal will have upon the tabloid culture; the decline in the sales of newspapers may, in the end, make it a moot point. Yet the very real shock felt in Britain over these two major stories may convince enough people that gawping at the sad lives of troubled people, by any means possible, does no one much good in the long run.

This story was first published on CNN’s website on 26 July, 2011

martyrs and messy divorces

(LONDON, England) When the pope gets up to speak in London’s historic Westminster Hall today we might forgive him a few nerves.

In agreeing to visit Britain he has, as some observers have noted, entered the lion’s den. A strongly secular society, leading British celebrities and academics were falling over themselves to put down the pontiff ahead of the visit.

If the implacable Pope Benedict XVI’s nerves are tested he is hardly likely to draw much comfort from the venue.

Westminster Hall, part of the Palace of Westminster estate which also includes the Houses of Parliament, has witnessed some key moments in British history and many of them paint a rather grim picture of papal relations over the years.

It was the venue for the trial of Guy Fawkes, who plotted to blow up parliament with gunpowder. When the conspirators were uncovered in 1605, Fawkes flung himself from the scaffold to avoid the agony of being hung, drawn and quartered.

Fawkes planned to assassinate the king and restore a Catholic monarch to the throne, and to this day Britons spend every November 5 burning effigies of the Catholic traitor on village greens and parks up and down the country.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Henry VIII celebrated his coronation with a banquet at the hall. When it comes to the breakdown of Anglo-papal relations, Henry was the real villain of the piece.

In 1527 Henry asked Pope Clement VII for a divorce from his wife Catherine of Aragon. When the Pope refused Henry had the marriage annulled by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and married the pregnant Ann Boleyn in a private ceremony.

When Clement found out he excommunicated Henry. Undaunted, the king simply had himself made head of the church, sacking monasteries and stealing their wealth and helping himself to the church taxes.

Henry’s actions were greeted with shock and anger by Catholics in Rome and in England, and when a group of priests refused to swear an oath accepting him as the head of the Church of England he had them killed, creating the first Catholic martyrs of the English Reformation.

The violence was not all one-sided. Henry’s daughter, Mary, remained a devout Catholic and when she succeeded her father she turned the crown’s fire on the Protestants, burning 284 of them at the stake including Cranmer.

After Mary’s death, the reconciliation with Rome fizzled out as her sister and heir, Queen Elizabeth I reaffirmed the monarch’s place as the head of the English church. In the late 1500s laws were introduced outlawing contact with the Roman church. Following the gunpowder plot, 1611 saw the publication of the King James Bible, the standard bible for the worldwide Anglican Church.

When Oliver Cromwell took charge after the English Civil War of the 1640s, a degree of tolerance was afforded to Catholics in England but the fiercely puritan Lord Protector imposed laws against them in Ireland.

By the 1700s it was enshrined in English law that the crown could not pass to a Catholic heir or anyone married to a Catholic. Yet towards the end of that century the authorities began to relax their position and the First Catholic Relief Act repealed the prosecution of priests and enabled Catholics to buy and inherit land.

The government’s stance was not reflected in the population where an undercurrent of anti-Catholic sentiment still existed. This boiled over in 1780 when a mob of 40,000 marched on parliament to oppose the relief act, carrying banners saying “no Popery” and attacking members of the House of Lords.

In the 19th century, Catholics were granted the vote and were allowed to run for public office. Even so, simmering resentments persisted. These hostilities were stoked in the middle of the century by a group of Anglicans who felt that the Church of England was in “spiritual decay.”

Known as the “Oxford Movement,” these Anglicans preached a return to a more Catholic version of Anglicanism. Their leader, John Henry Newman, eventually converted. Newman’s beatification is the reason for Pope Benedict’s current visit.

By last century the tensions had abated enough that in 1960 Geoffrey Fisher became the first Archbishop of Canterbury for 600 years to visit the Holy See.

Vatican II, the modernizing church council that took place in the early sixties helped this process of conciliation, calling for a “restoration of Unity among Christians.” This was followed by Pope John Paul II’s pastoral visit in 1982 and the current papal trip.

These days, the main threat to the Church of Rome in Britain is less Protestantism but rather a general mistrust of religion in public life that has made politicians and prominent figures wary of public expressions of faith.

For instance, a journalist for Vanity Fair claimed former prime minister Tony Blair’s then-press secretary Alistair Campbell once interrupted an interview to prevent his boss answering a question about about his Christianity with the words: “We don’t do God.”

Although it was known that Blair had been attending Mass for many years, he waited to the very end of his term in office before announcing he was converting to Catholicism. Still, at least he avoided the stake.

This article was first published on on 17 September, 2010

james lovelock

James Lovelock refers to himself as a “planetary doctor.” As someone who has studied his patient for over 40 years, the 88-year-old scientist and originator of Gaia theory, has reached a bleak prognosis: the world as we know it is ceasing to exist.

The impact of humanity has set in train processes that, according to Lovelock, are irreversible. Pollution, overpopulation and carbon emissions have already pushed the earth’s delicate regulatory systems beyond the point of no return, he says, and steps to address the climate crisis can do no more than slow down the inevitable.

“What we did was to pull the trigger in all of those things and set in course a motion, a change in the Earth, which is to all intents and purposes unstoppable,” he tells CNN.

The legacy for future generations is a world where droughts and extreme weather are commonplace, large portions of the planet are turned to uninhabitable desert and billions of people destined to die off.

He has predicted that by 2040 the Sahara will be encroaching on Europe, and by 2100 there will be only 500 million of us surviving close to the poles.

It is a grim account of what’s in store, and at odds with a large portion of scientific opinion that contends that if we take action now to cut carbon emissions, we can at least mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change.

So why should we take notice of him? Well, for one thing history is on his side: The British scientist’s seemingly fanciful assessments of our world have proved right in the past.

In the 1960s he came up with a revolutionary understanding of how the world works. All living things, he theorized, have a regulatory effect on the Earth’s environment, working together as one complete “superorganism” to sustain life.

In other words, life itself creates the conditions for life.

This holistic view of the planet he named Gaia after the Greek goddess of the Earth on the suggestion of his neighbor at the time in the English county of Wiltshire, William Golding, the author Lord of the Flies.

At first embraced by the New Age and environmental movement but almost totally ignored by the scientific community, the essential truth of the Gaia hypothesis — that the Earth regulates itself — has since been adopted by the scientific mainstream.

“It’s a top down view of the planet looking at it as a whole system, and science unfortunately in the last century divided [the study of the earth] up into numerous specialties,” he says.

According to Lovelock, this is why his predictions on climate change are more extreme, but also more accurate than those of leading scientific bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which he claims is limited in its assessment because it is made up of specialists whose focus is too narrow.

“The IPCC is made up largely of atmospheric physicists who are good at predicting the weather, but I’m not so sure that they are very good at predicting the future of the Earth.

“Likewise, the biologists who should be working with them are working separately and have produced the Millenium Ecosystem Assessments Commission’s report and that’s quite different from the IPCC and it’s mostly concerned with biodiversity and things like that.”

Although he offers some points of light — putting an aerosol layer of fine particles into the stratosphere to reflect back sunlight may, he says, could buy us some time by slowing down the rate of decline for a decade — his projections are on the whole brutally pessimistic.

Oddly however, he insists that he is himself an optimist by nature.

Listening to Lovelock it is easy to see why his theories caught on with New Age thinkers — there is a strain of spirituality in much of what he says.

He’s philosophical about the extinction of the human race, for example, viewing it as just another stage in the Earth’s life cycle.

“Humans always think of these things in grand and big terms, rather than as part of the natural course of events. There are all sorts of organisms that have evolved on the earth in its long, long four billion years of history.

“For example, organisms like the photo-synthesizers appeared and, ultimately turned the atmosphere into one with lots of oxygen in it … all sorts of dreadful things must have happened when that change took place.

“What we’re doing is small beer compared with what has happened in the past, and that’s why the earth is so robust and strong and will cope with it.”

As an environmentalist, he is also surprisingly upbeat about humanity in spite of the apparent mess we’ve made of the planet.

Without realizing it, he says, humans set into motion a train of events we didn’t realize we were in no position to control.

“We’re a wonderfully valuable species to our planet,” he says. “You see the great system has existed all those years and for the first time ever it’s had people talking about it, and we’re part of it, you see. So it’s beginning to understand its position in the universe.”

Humans may face an uncertain future but Gaia, it seems, will live on.

This article was first published on on 18 April, 2008

photos of the beat generation

With the death of the poet Peter Orlovsky in late May a chapter in America’s cultural life came to a discreet end. The long-term partner of Allen Ginsberg, Orlovsky was the last surviving connection to the movement of writers that emerged from Greenwich Village, New York, in the 1950s and which became known collectively as the beat generation.

In contrast to Orlovsky’s quiet demise from lung cancer, the beats arrived on the American art scene with an explosion of amphetamine-fueled creativity. Their frank explorations of the twin taboos of sexuality and drugs helped to usher in the counterculture of the 1960s and, though their wild antics were the stuff of legend, they paid a heavy price.

Jack Kerouac killed himself with alcohol, while William Burroughs killed his own wife in a drunken parlor game gone awry.

Ginsberg’s most famous poem “Howl” begins with the famous line “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” With its graphic descriptions of homosexuality, it flayed the sensibilities of conservative America.

So much so, that the poem became the subject of a landmark obscenity trial brought by the San Francisco police department against a city bookstore for stocking the poem.

The 1957 court battle is the centerpiece of a film about Ginsberg due for release in September. Also called “Howl” the film stars James Franco as the poet and Aaron Tveit as Peter Orlovsky.

In the meantime, Washington’s National Gallery of Art is showing a selection of Ginsberg’s photography, called “Beat Memories.”

The fascination this iconoclastic group of young artists still inspire is evident in the exhibition, which features intimate portraits of Ginsberg and his circle taken from the 1950s up until his death in 1997.

The photos in the exhibition are spontaneous and expressive, many of them taken before the beats had achieved literary fame.

One snapshot shows Kerouac in downtown Manhattan, wide-eyed and mouthing something to the camera, a model of youthful exuberance. In a handwritten note to accompany it, Ginsberg wrote that the author of “On the Road,” — the most well-known of the beat novels — was mugging a “Dostoyevsky mad-face” for the occasion.

A later photograph of “Naked Lunch” author William Burroughs by contrast shows the ageing writer gazing skyward as he reclines on a beaten up old chair at his home in Kansas.

Ginsberg appears in some of the photos too: In a group shot taken by Orlovsky outside City Lights, the bookstore prosecuted in the obscenity trial. In it the young poet looks fresh-faced and nerdy in his trademark dark-rimmed glasses.

Not exactly the image you might conjure up for the man who wrote of “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” and who would resurface in the 1960s as a bearded guru of acid and free love.

The photo was dated a year before the trial. In spite of the district attorney’s contention at the time that the poem was “filthy, vulgar, obscene and disgusting” “Howl” evaded the censors and is now recognized as one of the seminal works of American poetry, no doubt helped by the oxygen of publicity generated by the original trial.

The poem presents a series of nightmarish images of young men pushed to the brink of sanity through their own excess and by the absurdity of modern life.

It is dedicated to Carl Solomon who Ginsberg met in a mental institution in New York State. Like the other beat writers, Ginsberg stayed close to Solomon for the remainder of his life.

As much as anything else the photos in the exhibition are a celebration of these enduring relationships formed by the poet over the years. With this in mind, one of the most moving photographs shows Orlovsky leaning over a snow-covered bust of James Joyce at the Irish writer’s graveside in Zurich in 1980.

Nearly two decades later the same man was at the New York bedside of one of the best minds of his own generation, when Ginsberg breathed his last.

This article was first published on on 26 July, 2010